It took 20 years for artist Mark Rothko to find his unique voice as an abstract expressionist painter. For its grand opening in 1959, the famous Four Seasons restaurant in New York city commissioned Rothko to paint a series of murals for $35,000, an unheard of amount of money at the time. Playwright John Logan examines this process in the fictional drama Red at PURE Theatre.

Winner of the 2010 Tony Award for best play, Red is set in 1958-’59 at Rothko’s studio on Bowery Street at the height of his artistic career. The famed artist has hired Ken, a young, aspiring artist, to assist him with what are now known as The Seagram Murals, which are exhibited in major museums throughout the world.

In his dimly lit studio containing the bare essentials among the artist’s canvasses, paints, and brushes, the overbearing Rothko (Mark Landis) immediately defines their relationship: “I am not your father, your rabbi, or your teacher. I am your employer.” But, of course, he grows to become all these things to Ken (Tripp Hamilton) in the two years that the play spans. Timid Ken, orphaned by the gruesome murder of his parents, is in awe of the passionate, dark, angry Rothko, but he earnestly admits to his favorite artists being Jackson Pollack and Pablo Picasso. “We destroyed Cubism … We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a Cubist picture today … The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him,” Rothko pontificates. And pontificate Rothko likes to do.

Logan’s portrayal of this father/son, mentor/mentee relationship analyzes the meaning of art and the passing of the old to give way to the new. Just as Rothko’s Schubert gives way to Ken’s Chet Baker, Rothko is faced with the rise of Pop Art. Representing the generation gap growing in the 1950s, Ken welcomes the coming of pop artists like Roy Lichenstein and Andy Warhol. To 55-year-old, Jewish Rothko, who fled oppressive Russia as a 10-year-old child with his family and then worked to help support them after his father died just months later, life is hard and bitter and real art should be also. When Rothko predicts that Warhol is temporal and will never hang in the museums next to the modern greats, Ken throws Rothko’s own words back in his face, “You can exit stage left, Rothko. Pop art has banished abstract expressionism.” After two years of working together, Rothko proclaims that Ken has just begun to exist. The teacher gives way to the student.

Under the direction of Sharon Graci, the veteran actor Landis wanders within Rothko searching for the character’s voice, briefly taking hold, and finally finding it as he describes his dining experience at the Four Seasons restaurant, where his murals hang. With shaven head and glasses, Landis resembles the artist, but not until halfway through the 90-minute production does Landis give us Rothko: philosophical, opinionated, angry, sentimental, bitter, cynical, and principled. Hamilton’s portayal of the equally passionate, if less boisterous, Ken is bland and stiff, more akin to reciting lines than fleshing out a character. Being miscast or misdirected can trap a talented actor, leaving him to struggle aimlessly. The wordy script throws up numerous obstacles, and with the lack of action and focus, the overall energy is low. Red depends on the chemistry between the two actors, and chemistry is lacking in PURE’s production.

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